It's black and white

13 November 2021
Historic photos zero in on Pacific Nations' climate plight
A new exhibition of some of the earliest photographs taken in the Pacific Islands aims to highlight the region's vulnerability to climate change.

Pacific Views is a selection of landscapes taken from the 1870s until the 1960s on show at the Chau Chak Wing Museum, drawing on its historic photograph collection. The black-and-white and hand-coloured photographs reveal early colonial scenes from Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, Fiji, Nauru, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Tonga, Samoa, New Caledonia and New Zealand.

Framed by the Fijian concept of talanoa (dialogue), employed by the UN Climate Change Council, the exhibition incorporates the work of contemporary Pacific poets. These ecopoems refer to ecological issues affecting Pacific peoples’ homelands, with more recent works directly addressing climate change.

In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change references Pacific Islands’ vulnerability to climate change, saying “sea level rises will cause shorelines to retreat along sandy coasts of most Small Islands.”

Soundscapes from the PARADISEC archive of the world’s small cultures and languages, many of which are endangered, form the third element of the exhibition. PARADESIC’s holdings at the University’s Conservatorium of Music include oral histories and song lines included in Pacific Views.

“We’ve taken photographs from the colonial era and projected them into the future through contemporary Pacific Islanders’ voices and words,” said co-curator Dr Jude Philp, a senior curator at the Chau Chak Wing Museum. 

A black and white image of thatched huts surrounded by palm trees taken in Funafuti, Tuvalu

Section pipe of diamond drill on reef platform 1897, Funafuti, Tuvalu

“People don’t feature in the exhibition and that’s a deliberate choice. The pairing of landscapes with soundscapes brings home the eerie threat climate change poses to some the world’s most vulnerable communities. The landscapes in the exhibition are breathtaking but bereft of human life.”

The free exhibition is co-curated by PARADISEC archivist Steven Gagau, who brings a breadth of Pacific knowledge to the exhibition.

“This exhibition offers our Pacific communities a rare insight into both their traditional and colonial histories,” he said. “It also gives momentum to the urgent plight of those who will be most affected by climate change.”

The museum’s photographic holdings exceed 60,000 images, held in its Macleay Collections. Pacific Views draws on the collections’ Burns Philp archive, Geography and Anthropological Field Research and Teaching Records and private donations. It will be shown in the museum’s historic photography gallery, one of 18 exhibition spaces at the University’s free public museum.

What: Pacific Views  

When: 13 November until June 2022 

Opening hours: Mon-Fri, 10am-5pm; Sat-Sun, 12-4pm (NB: closed during the University's shutdown from 24 December until 9 January)

Where: Chau Chak Wing Museum University Place, University of Sydney, Camperdown, Sydney 

Cost: Free  


Jocelyn Prasad

Media and Public Relations Advisor

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